Explaining the ‘Chapo Trap House’ Podcast to the Uninitiated
If you’re as online as much as me, you’ve surely heard of the Chapo Trap House podcast. It’s the new big thing with politics/media people who are young/hip, or seek to appear as such. Hosted by the Twitter brocialist trinity of Felix Biederman, Matt Cushman, and Will Menaker, the weekly show has consistently been at at least respectable position on the “news & politics” podcast charts. But more importantly, I like it, and so that it why I want more people to listen to it.
But the thing is, there’s a lot of background reading required to understand many of the jokes and/or riffs/discussions. And by background reading I mean tweets. You have to be pretty deep into Twitter political culture to appreciate it. For example, it’s a given on, say, The Daily Show that Donald Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border. On Chapo, it’s a given that Jeopardy! troll slash Internet bitch Arth*r Ch* makes sure to watch gay porn regularly so he can appreciate how uncomfortable women are made to feel all the time. Most would never think of this…
But why? Why did this level of reference end up facilitating such a successful podcast? I don’t know, sorry.
I can, however, in the proud tradition of online explainer journalism, break down an episode and translate it into plain English for the uninitiated.
Chapo Trap House episode 2: We Need to Talk About Kevin, originally posted on March 19, 2016
To start: a trap house is a house where people smoke crack (or weed??), and is rapped about in a lot of rap songs. Chapo is El Chapo.
The title of this episode refers to National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson — more on that later.
This episode starts with a loose sketch where the three hosts play a “woke zoo crew” and talk about how one of them let Hulk Hogan fuck his wife, a reference to Bubba the Love Sponge. Also in this sketch Felix name checks “misogynoir,” a word made up and used exclusively by grad students who don’t have enough characters left to type “misogyny against black women.”
At minute three: “It’s not about how many times you get knocked down. It’s about how many times you get back up.”
This comes in the context of a discussion of Harry Bosch, the character in Michael Connelly books who’s a cop, but he’s also named after… a Renaissance painter??!! I believe the general gist of this joke is that it’s making fun of the weird Facebook/Instagram bubble of male-centric inspiration memes that are screenshots of Wolf of Wall Street with overlaid text like “failure is the first step to success” or “Only 5% are willing to fail enough to succeed”.
This is followed by 12 minutes of that week’s political news, which was just after Super Tuesday and seems impossibly quaint at this point, and a story from Chrisman about going to the Trump protest in Chicago that caused his rally there to be canceled.
At 15:10: “Chicago wasn’t violent, it was just loud by the standards of the babies like Michael Barbaro.”
Michael Barbaro is a New York Times politics reporter and shining example of a white big city liberal who writes about all the right causes professionally but then tweets things like this:
The connective tissue here is that this was a tiny Twitter story for about a day, which was enough to establish Barbaro in the lexicon of deep politics Twitter inside jokes. The same way you could once count on everyone to get “George Bush = dumb” as an underlying truth for jokes, the Chapo Trap House audience can now be counted on to get “Michael Barbaro = huge pussy who says things are dangerous and unacceptable.”
Here’s some further reading.
At 22:30: “Kevin D. Williamson wants poor white Americans to pull their damn pants up.”
Kevin D. Williamson is a writer for the National Review, the conservative magazine that put out this cover back in February:
He started out as the theater critic for NR and then worked his way up to people taking his political opinions seriously. Two days before this podcast posted he published this essay, in which he compares poor children to stray dogs.
The angle Chapo takes here is that Williamson’s essay is a symptom of the larger nervous breakdown in the “intellectual” William Buckley right where they have to confront the fact that white people can be poor too. This causes them a lot of anxiety because they can’t just blame it on black culture and say they’re too busy rapping to get a real job. Williamson’s solution? Raze those communities to force the residents to move and start over somewhere else. Basically exactly Trump’s deportation proposition, except deporting poor white people from their communities to…somewhere else.
Some further reading.
38:50: “It’s going to start with David [Brooks] and Ross Douthat on a road trip across the country, stopping at chain restaurants and big box retailers, and just…starting conversations.”
Continuing the theme of how many of the elitist pundits who set the parameters of conversation around big political issues are hopelessly out of touch with average Americans. This point has been hit pretty hard in this election cycle so I won’t belabor it, but the interesting thing here is David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Brooks is the NY Times columnist who frustrates liberals and conservatives alike by trying to claim both while having no actual principles himself, on top of being, again, hopelessly out of touch. “I would much prefer the open contempt of Kevin Williamson than the simmering condescension of David Brooks.”
But less well-known — at least I think? — is Ross Douthat. Douthat is definitely a Chapo favorite; if great authors have a loose cast of characters that show up in all their stories, Douthat is Chapo’s Jack Ryan. He has it all: he’s conservative, he writes for the New York Times, he went to Harvard and then wrote a book about “privilege and the education of the ruling class”, and he’s just kind of a doofus.
The Chapo coverage of Douthat is extensive:
Episode 3 – Freeway Ross Douthat Sailboat Dope
Episode 30 – Freeway Ross Douthat, Pt. 2: Tha Harvard Plug
At 46:45: “Um excuse me, senate republicans, but by your logic this guy deserves to be confirmed on the Supreme Court. QED.”
This is about Merrick Garland, who had at the time of recording just been nominated for the Supreme Court and has still not been confirmed. The little wrinkle of this discussion that I want to tease out is the “by your own logic” thing. This is an excellent example of a little online rhetorical quirk that you can only recognize if you’ve seen it 5,000 times, and then you can’t stop seeing it. And the most fascinating thing is (at least in the fiction of this world of references) it’s always the exact same new atheist neckbeard logic nerd who invokes it. But then also here we see Obama doing it. I mean, that is the reasoning behind the nomination of Merrick Garland: that he’s kind of liberal, but high profile Senate republicans have gone on record praising him. So if he’s bad, then you must thing Orrin Hatch is bad too… checkmate bitch…
51:15: “Ben Shapiro and [Joe] Pollock both harbored fantasies of being the telegenic faces and voices of the conservative movement. The only thing holding them back? Their faces and voices.”
This comes in a riff about Ben Shapiro’s exit from Breitbart, which had just happened at the time. Shapiro left that site over a disagreement over, you guessed it, Trump and the alt-right. It’s a quote from this article by Mark Ames and Max Blumenthal, definitely one of the best essays about Breitbart ever published.
At 59:25: extremely Dr. Vox voice “Hamilton. The White House. It’s all happening.”
The last big chunk of the podcast, about Hamilton (and specifically this very good essay You Should Be Terrified That People Who Enjoy Hamilton Run Our Country), is grounded in a close reading of a series of tweets by this guy Dr. Vox, real name David Roberts. He is a blogger at Vox and, according to Biederman, “a neoliberal shithead.” Unpacking the quote above, Chapo wants to tell us that the reason people like Dr. Vox love Hamilton is this: they are the most privileged people in the country by far; they are uncomfortable about this and know that they would have been the white slave owners in the world of Hamilton, which causes even greater anxiety. But Hamilton is multicultural and hip-hop and everyone is dressed like a pirate! So it makes them feel really great and progressive, they immediately get addicted to that feeling, and so they have to extend it by broadcasting how over the moon they are about this shitty Schoolhouse Rap musical.
And that is the end of the podcast. I will leave you with this.